When Noor Jehan was asked in the 1980s about the most talented composers that she had worked with, among others she also mentioned Ustad Nazar Hussain. Many not too involved with music had to ask who this Nazar Hussain was. And then a hectic search ensued to identify the person mentioned in such glowing terms by one of the leading vocalists of the subcontinent.
Such was the man Nazar Hussain whom very few knew. Only those truly initiated into music recognised his real worth for he was unassuming and for a man associated with the performing arts, actually of an extremely retiring nature to the extent of being shy. He hardly extolled himself as many artistes do and rarely sang even in private mehfils.
One has had the occasion to listen to Nazar Hussain singing kheyal and thumris in a very select group, mostly comprising his inner family, and had the privilege to see and hear him compose and direct the vocalist to negotiate through the immensely complex jaghas which on the surface appear to be simple. One wonders what is the exact translation of the phrase jagha lena — probably the ability to sing a very complex phrase or a movement. Or to be effortless in rendering a musical grace. Or it may be a combination of all three.
This is a very valued ability in our music because it is primarily melodic in nature and the subtle rendering of the combinations of note is of critical significance. This may be an ability which is inborn and then is developed to enhance the musical worth in the larger scheme of things.
Born in Lahore to a family of musicians, he was initiated into music as is the wont by his father Fateh Din. For further training of a more complex nature or higher education in it, he was handed over to Ustad Inayat Ali Sultani. He also learnt to play the sarod from Ustad Shareef Hussain and was also a disciple of Bhai Mehr Ali.
Few people knew that he was an excellent sarod player and in him many saw sarod players of the same class as Ustads Ali Akber Khan and Amjad Ali Khan. But after decades of learning to play the sarod and then performing occasionally, he gave it up as he knew that he had developed an ailment that prevented him sitting for long hours on end in the general posture required in playing the instrument. He was also heartbroken because, despite all his virtuosity, he was not able to perform much. There were very few performances and a dwindling listenership more involved or attracted to other more popular forms of music, especially vocal music.
He got a break initially at Radio Pakistan Hyderabad and shifted there to work on contractual basis. After a while, he was offered a more permanent position that he accepted and lived there for many years. It was only when the Central Production Unit was set up in Lahore that he moved back to the city in the 1960s and was offered the job of a composer. It was here that his compositions started getting noticed and his name surfaced above the layers of anonymity which characterised his entire earlier life.
It has been an unfair tradition both in radio and television that the name of the vocalist or the performer is mentioned, even the name of the poet is recorded, but that of the composer and the instrumentalists in the orchestra goes totally unmentioned. Radio was the bastion of music in the earlier decades of the last century and even in Pakistan it was the institution that guaranteed high quality music. It can be said that the acceptance of ghazal as a form of higher music owes a lot to the radio and while the vocalists became famous, the composer remained in the shadows only known to the few insiders.
Some of the composers were actually employed by the radio and their contribution was not recognised separately from the institution. It was generally stressed that the entire package was a creation of the radio and their names were not necessary to be mentioned. The singers were known because their voices could be heard, the poets too were known because they had written the lyrics separately as distinct form of poetry and not lyrics tailored to suit a composition but it was the poor composer who suffered the most along with instrumentalists. Even those composers who were not employed by radio but were engaged for individual assignments were hardly ever mentioned. Nazar Hussain suffered this fate too and seemed to have gone through lack of popular acceptance unfazed.
In the earlier phase of the films, the vocalists, composers and lyricists were not even mentioned. The gramophone discs actually mentioned the name of the actor on which the song was “picturised”. But it all changed gradually when vocalists and composers fought for individual recognition of their talent. But this came very late in the radio and many like Niaz Hussain Shami and Master Manzoor were not mentioned while their compositions were heard far and wide were attributed to the vocalists.
Besides many ghazals and geets that he composed for Noor Jehan, Mehdi Hasan and Bilqees Khanum, Ustad Nazar Hussain he also composed Amir Khusro’s kalam and later the poetry of Majeed Amjad and Mushtaq Soofi. This was groundbreaking in the sense that these were a departure from the norm of composition. Usually composition is incremental in character where the musical sense is tapped and then exploited. But few are so experimental to not build on this inherited sense of music but depart from it to venture forth initially to make the unmusical musical. Nazar Hussain in his compositions was able to point to that direction.
He worked not to his full potential as a composer; one regrets that as a vocalist his talent remained totally unexploited and his sarod playing abandoned in the middle.